When the manuscript for Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John came across my desk, I was immediately pulled in by the story of a deaf girl managing a high school rock band. It was full of characters I wanted to know more about, from Piper whose parents have just blown her college fund on a cochlear implant for her deaf baby sister, to Ed who has a secret crush on Piper, to Kallie who is the gorgeous girl with secrets of her own, to Tash, the angry punk-rock chick, to Josh and Will - twin brothers who couldn’t be more different.
It didn’t occur to me that this was a book about diversity when I first read it - to me it was about a group of teens going through the things that teens do, told in an authentic way. It’s about self-expression and self-confidence, creating your own identity, standing up for yourself, falling in love for the first time, breaking out of your shell, being brave. Yet Piper is deaf, Ed is Asian, Kallie is biracial, and Tash, Josh, and Will are white. It is clear in the story that they are, but to me the story was never about them being only those things so I hardly even noticed that first read through.
I was the reader who read voraciously at night under the bedclothes with a flashlight, the reader always in trouble as a teenager for not participating in the spin of family interactions because I “had my head in a book”.
So it came as a huge surprise and caused much mirth in my family when my first paid work after I moved to America, was - in fact - reading.
I always knew I wanted to work with books, and the publishing world seemed a good place to start. My deep secret desire was to be a writer myself, one day. I dreamed of joining the ranks of those magical people whose words and stories I so admired.
Determined to find a place in the world of books, I began by ignoring the fear that sent butterflies fluttering about my stomach. I put through a phone call to the sole contact I had in the publishing world, an elderly literary agent, the only publishing person my own literary agent in London knew in the US.
A senior agent in a venerable literary agency, she was polite but unequivocally discouraging. She was the first to recite a mantra I was to hear again and again for the next six months, as I grabbed at names reluctantly proffered and made my cold calls, hand and voice shaking: “Well,” they said, one after another, “you can’t get into publishing if you’ve never had a publishing job before.”
Contributed to CBC Diversity by our very own Andrea Davis Pinkney My Personal Connection
My teenagers are some opinionated people! I love this about them. It means they have strong ideas and that they’re speaking up about what’s important to them. That’s why I was very eager to write this blog post about clichés and stereotypes. As the mom of two teens, my daughter and son waste no time telling me what needs to be fixed in the YA books they read. As an editor and author, my kids like to stick it to me, thinking I have some magical power to correct each and every societal stereotype that exists in books for young people. While I don’t have a magic wand, I do know there is one cliché that annoys the heck out of me and my teens. Hopefully this post will shine some light on it.
I’ll pose it in the way my kids put it to me ― in a question: “Why, in contemporary YA novels that feature groups of kids as friends, the black girl or boy is always a sidekick, secondary character, or nonentity?”
The way my daughter and son see it, this is the kid with no character development, no backstory, no emotional growth, no family, and dialogue one-liners that don’t amount to much.
Please tell us about the most recent diverse book you published.
Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven will be coming out in June. It’s the wonderful continuation of the story told in One Crazy Summer, and I love it! In this story, sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are back in Brooklyn after a summer spent with their mother in Oakland, CA. Delphine starts sixth grade, with all the perils that entails—a male teacher she can’t quite figure out, the sixth-grade dance, a growth spurt that leaves her taller than almost all the boys. And there’s the Jackson Five, this heavenly new group that is going to be playing in Madison Square Garden… Although the book is set in the late 1960s, it’s has a very universal quality. And the setting never intrudes on the story—Rita is very careful about that. She is a master. We’ve worked together on all of her novels, and I’m proud to be her editor. Love Rita, love her books.
What’s the biggest challenge for publishing companies who want to feature more diverse titles?
Publishing diverse books has long been a passion of mine. I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen the climate for publishing diverse titles get sunny, and then cloudy, and then sunny again, and so on. I’ve been involved in publishing Spanish-language and bilingual books at Penguin, and at Harper, through the Rayo imprint. The toughest problem is selling the books and reaching the market. I’ve heard a lot of publisher-bashing, which I feel is not entirely fair—and I suppose I’ll be criticized for saying so. In my experience, I’ve seen strong efforts to sell diverse books that are sometimes met with low sales—and I’m thinking of Spanish-language and bilingual books in particular. It’s likely that publishers don’t quite know how to reach the market. But perhaps people who want publishers to publish more diverse books should make a commitment to buy the books.
The problem does not lie only on the side of the publishers, although there is certainly more we can do.